A Small Note About Big Red

 

I was ten years old when I read the “boys’ novel” Big Red for the first time, in 1966. There was a much-publicized new edition of the book out that year, 21 years after its first edition, and five years after a popular Disney movie of the book had taken peculiar license with the plot, unaccountably adding French-Canadian accents and roles. Big Red was given to me as a Christmas present by one of my two uncles, a reserved and exclusively urban man who had very probably never set foot in a forest in his life, let alone plumbed the sort of dense woods in which Big Red is set: an odd gift from a gentle and mysterious man.

            I read Red mostly on the floor, sprawled on a golden carpet lit by fat bars of sunlight, and it seems to me I read it mostly on late afternoons, often with snacks in hand and dribbling over pages, for I remember the last light of wintry days bending into the room, and the crunch of cracker-crumbs between pages when the book was ordered closed by my parents herding their progeny to dinner. Three decades later I re-read the book, and again digested it while supine, but this time I read it sans crackers and abed late at night, a middle-aged man’s time to himself, the day’s labors and laughters concluded. Near me now on second read were not ingots of winter light but a wife and three children, all asleep, not a one interested in the sylvan perambulations of 17-year-old Danny Pickett and the big red Irish setter that was the love of his life.

            The man who created Danny and his dog was a former trapper and surveyor named Jim Kjelgaard. Big Red was Kjelgaard’s third book for Holiday House, which had asked him to try a boys’ book in 1941, after being impressed by his outdoor stories in magazines. Kjelgaard’s first two books for Holiday, Forest Patrol and Rebel Siege, had sold modestly, but Big Red took off running -- 225,000 copies by 1956, the Disney movie of the book in 1961, nearly a million copies sold in its first 50 years -- and it is still in print, most recently by Bantam Books. Red and Danny were so very popular that Kjelgaard wrote about them again in Irish Red (1951) and Outlaw Red (1953), which nominally star Red’s sons Mike and Sean, respectively, but are really about the same subtle subjects that pervade Big Red: the mysterious, dangerous, entrancingly remote deep woods of the Allegheny Mountains in the early 20th century; the wild animals of those woods and the ways that they live and die; Danny’s precocious maturity, independence, and knowledge of those woods and their denizens; the behavior, conduct, training, and use of hunting and show dogs; and the many ways in which men and dogs respect and love each other.

            James Arthur Kjelgaard wrote 46 books, all told, before he died in 1959, at age 48. Nearly all his books were for teenagers and about animals, and they are as a rule well-written, clear, and suspenseful, but it is Big Red that is Kjelgaard’s primary literary legacy, and reading through it and its two sequels again after three decades has been an edifying pleasure. I learned many things that I did not notice when I was ten years old and sprawled on the floor gobbling crackers.

            I noticed that Kjelgaard tries hard to explain the story as a whole by talking again and again about how breeding dogs for certain skills and appearances is a valorous and virtuous thing (this line of talk explains the presence of Red’s owner, the millionaire dog-breeder Mister Haggin, played by the dapper Walter Pidgeon in the Disney movie), but I also noticed that Kjelgaard’s heart is in hunting, not bloodlines, and scenes set in New York City at a dog show ring false. They are too civilized, too much set-pieces placed on the stage to illustrate the virtue of dog-breeding, and they have none of the muddy excitement of the rest of the books, in which all the action takes place in the woods.


            I also noticed that another repeated theme is Danny’s speedy maturation. In Big Red, Danny comes to love Red intensely and so is brought to the realization that his career will not be running traplines in the deep forest but raising hunting and show dogs; by the end of the book, in which he and Red together battle and defeat a relentless wolverine and a monstrous bear, he has become a thoughtful and purposeful young man, planning for his future. In the second book, Irish Red, Danny slowly takes the pole position in the family from his father Ross; in many ways the book chronicles Danny’s rise to full manhood, both in the woods, where he and Mike escape a cougar and save Ross from freezing to death, and in his new career, where he and Mike beat back a challenge from a cruel trainer and his English (horrors!) setters. By the third book, Outlaw Red, Danny is himself the authority figure to a new character, a backwoods boy euphoniously named Billy Dash, who is in many ways Danny Pickett again -- a shy native woodsman who loves dogs inarticulately and loves Sean especially and wishes desperately that there might be a way for him to own Sean. Such a thing is not possible in the normal order of things, Billy being a kennel boy and Sean a show champion, but the end of Outlaw Red, much like the end of Big Red, finds boy and dog miraculously bound by mutual love and by Mr. Haggin’s wise generosity.

            A middle-aged man reads a boy’s book much differently than he did when he was a boy, and where once I whipped through the books as fast as I could to find out what would happen, now I paused and pondered, and re-read passages, and contemplated Kjelgaard at work. I noticed now, for example, that there are virtually no women in the books, and that the only woman who appears for more than a couple of sentences is a greedy, self-centered virago who tries to steal Red in the first book. (Two substantive females do play key roles in the trilogy, but they are canine: Sheilah MacGuire, Red’s mate, and Penelope of Killarney, called Penny, Sean’s mate. Poor Mike remains a bachelor throughout his book, never even sniffing the possibility of love.) And I spent a lot of time contemplating Mr. Haggin, who is a sort of beneficent woods God, owning everything, adjudicating disputes, magisterially giving Red to Danny and Sean to Billy. A man could write a wonderfully obscure essay about the theology of Big Red.

            In re-reading, I also caught, here and there in vaguely remembered passages, tantalizing glimpses of myself at age ten. The middle-aged reader I am now, for example, realized thatDanny’s intimacy with the ways of the woods was something I yearned almost desperately for as a boy, despite my actual existence in a world of aluminum siding and asphalt and station wagons. Such a yearning had a lot to do with the coonskin cap and Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone craze of my 1960s boyhood, perhaps, and perhaps it also had a lot to do with membership in the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that sets out to teach elemental woodcraft, among other things (thrift, reverence, etc.), to its troops. Certainly in 1966, when I gobbled up the Red books, there were far fewer Danny Picketts in the American woods, and many fewer American woods, too, than there had been 40 years previous, when Kjelgaard was himself a teenager watching marten chase squirrels through the beechwoods of the Alleghenies.

            The general loss of woods and woodcraft may explain some of the enduring popularity of the Red books. I think that many young people -- perhaps most young people -- crave what wilderness they can find, if it is only rabbits among tract houses, or starlings in attics, or pigeons in ghettoes, or a tangled thicket in the yard, because youth is drawn intrinsically to the mystery of the natural world, the unregulated relentless procession of it, its life and death without adult supervision. That natural inclination may be more pronounced in an American youth because the lore and literature and history of this nation has so much of the outdoors in it: the deerslayers and primeval peoples of the eastern woods, the sodbusters and cowboys and horse-warriors of the plains and arid lands, the mountain men of the Rockies, the salmon tribes and loggers of the vast Northwest fir forests. And that inclination may be more pronounced still because what young people hear from every front these days is demise and loss, of forests, animals, ozone layers, ways of life. A boy on the edge of manhood, itching to be independent, soaked in stories of the woods and trails, interested as a matter of course in animals since he was an infant, frightened and saddened by the loss of much of the natural world -- is it any wonder he might read Big Red avidly, so that for a time he would be Danny Pickett, woods-wise, walking silently through the forest, knowing the ways and manners of mysterious wolverines, lynx, martens, cougars, fishers? Half a century after Jim Kjelgaard invented Danny Pickett and set him to shambling through the woods in the opening lines of Big Red, those wild animals are no longer seen in the Allegheny beech forests where Kjelgaard walked as a boy, but the Red books sell as briskly as ever.

           

What I noticed above all, in re-reading Red, was that it was about animals in the woods than anything else, including maturing boys and show dogs, and this made me very interested in Kjelgaard the man. Here is a professional writer who diligently sets and follows plotlines but who talks with true love about traplines, who issues speech after speech about the great work that human beings do when they breed dogs but who is much more colorful and passionate when he talks about the terrific speed of a pine marten chasing a squirrel or the breeding seasons of red foxes (“my favorite animal, I think,” he wrote to a friend late in life). How came this man, at age 34, to be writing so knowledgeably about wolverines and lynx and the battle habits of huge black bears?

            Born in 1910, in New York City, son of a physician, fourth of six children, Kjelgaard “was not yet out of three-cornered pants when the family moved to a farm in the Pennsylvania mountains,” he wrote in 1951, in an autobiographical sketch for The Junior Book of Authors. “My father owned or acquired about 750 acres of land, which was stocked with cattle, horses, sheep, dogs, chickens, and everything else. Eventually our father sold the farm and we moved to Galeton, Pennsylvania [also in the Allegheny Mountains] . . . Between intervals of attending school we ran trap lines, shot deer, and fished for trout.” At age 18 he enrolled at Syracuse University and lasted two years, after which he “held a dozen jobs, and at one time or another [was a] laborer, teamster, factory worker, plumber’s apprentice, and surveyor’s assistant. I started writing because things seemed just naturally to be heading in that direction anyhow.”

            A lovely last sentence, that one, funny and seemingly ingenuous; but that litany of jobs reveals a man unsure of his career, much like young Danny Pickett in Big Red. Perhaps Danny the young trapper and woodsman uncertain what to do in life came directly from Jim Kjelgaard in the same predicament in the same woods just before the Depression. It is interesting to note in this regard that Kjelgaard’s first book, Forest Patrol, is about a young man in the Allegheny woods trying to decide what to do with his life; he decides to try for forest ranger school, a target Kjelgaard knew well, for his brother John had become a ranger.

            Kjelgaard had a trapper’s familiarity with Mustelidae, the carnivore family that features weasels at the small end, valuable fur-bearers such as mink, otter, marten, and fisher in the middle, and the king of the northern woods, the wolverine, at the top of the line. The clever, powerful, fearless wolverine is a fascinating creature (it figures prominently in the myths and lore of northern peoples, it has been known to attack and kill moose that outweigh it by nearly a ton, even grizzly bears and cougars cede kills to it, and it was and is renowned among trappers and hunters for robbing traplines and breaking into hunters’ cabins for food), and an especially violent one plays a key role in Big Red. But Kjelgaard brings the whole Mustelidae family to the table in the three Red books, spending many pages explaining their lives and detailing how Danny sets traps for weasels (he nails fresh chicken heads to tree trunks and sets traps below, knowing that the weasel, hungry or not, will be drawn to blood), and mink and otter (water traps, carefully de-scented). As for marten, Kjelgaard uses this lithe, rare, arboreal creature to make a note of trapper ethics; Danny spots two marten while fishing in the mountains but he decides not to trap them as they are apparently the only pair in the region. Danny’s is a far-sighted economic decision; leaving the marten to flourish might yield a steady supply in subsequent years. But I think too that Kjelgaard was a conservationist, and wanted to show his audience of post-war teenage boys that no trapping could be good trapping, and I also think he just liked writing about the marten, a little-known denizen of the deep woods.

            Much of the fascination of the Red books, for me, was and is their casual knowledge about these and other mysterious mammals of the woods -- the mustelids, bear, bobcat (or “wildcat,” as Ross calls them), lynx, cougar. For a boy like me, growing up in suburban New York where wilderness was sparse and the only unmapped places were the miles of rippling dunes along Long Island’s Atlantic shore, Ross’s offhand mention (in Big Red) of “the fisher cat we pulled spitting out of a cave last year” was entrancing. The phrase reeked of independence, woodcraft, an easy familiarity with the most elusive creatures of the North American forests. The chances of me actually seeing a marten or fisher in the thin woods near me were beyond nil, but there was something in me that wanted very much to be able to know a creature like a marten, and understand its life among the high branches, and recognize it instantly, as Danny does, when he looks up into the beech branches and notes a terrified squirrel fleeing from “a lithe brown creature, fully as agile and tree-wise as the squirrel, its silky coat glistening in the sun.”

            Re-reading Red, I realized too that I owe a debt to Kjelgaard: He set me on a path toward other writers, many of them superb. Entranced by his knowledge of the woods and woods-creatures, I turned first to other books about mustelids, like Gavin Maxwell’s fine Ring of Bright Water and Henry Williamson’s Tarka (both about otters, and the latter, interestingly, T.E. Lawrence’s favorite book), and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, starring Badger and an army of villainous weasels, and Cameron Langford’s The Winter of the Fisher. From there I journeyed into such popular naturalists as Edwin Way Teale and Charlton Ogburn and Hal Borland and Roger Tory Peterson, and as the years went on I developed a natural bent toward the many excellent writers in whose works animals are integral or central: John Burroughs, Gilbert White, John Muir, Henry Beston, T.H. White, John Baker, Rachel Carson, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez (in whose work there are many wolverines), John and Frank Craighead, Ann Zwinger, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, Richard Nelson, William deBuys, Robert Michael Pyle, dozens more. And from those writers I went further into the context of animals -- books about landscape, zoology, geology, ornithology, paleontology. Not only have I thus been introduced to some of the most imaginative and interesting American literature ever written, but those writers and their books have led in part to my own interests as a man and as a writer, and for this delightful education I must thank, before all other writers, the “laborer, teamster, factory worker, plumber’s apprentice, and surveyor’s assistant” who “started writing because things seemed just naturally to be heading in that direction anyhow.”

           

Even as I acknowledge my debt I am bound to confess that Kjelgaard has many flaws as a writer. His characters are simple at best and cartoons at worst. It could be argued, successfully, that the Irish setters are more complete characters than any of the human beings except Danny, and that Danny is really the only fully drawn human character in the books, Ross and Mr. Haggin and Billy Dash and others serving as foils. And Danny is only fully drawn, I suspect, because Kjelgaard was writing about himself with rueful affection.

            At his best his books could rise to the level of Big Red, which is as much about Danny’s rite of passage from boy to man as it is about the setters, and which features non-stop action and plot progress; at his worst he cranked out stories that, read several at a time, begin to appear to be made by recipe. His range was, by evidence of his books, somewhat limited. His books were very nearly all about hunting, dogs, or animals, very often a combination of the three, as in the Big Red trilogy, and a slew of his books starred a single wild animal: a beaver, a fox, a bobcat, a deer, a moose, a polar bear, a coyote. But it could just as easily be said that the man knew his talents better than most and rode those talents hard and well. Kjelgaard was also a serious student of history and wrote books about prehistoric man, about Australian aborigines, about the American frontier, about the Oregon Trail, and the self-explanatory Explorations of Pere Marquette, Story of Geronimo, Coming of the Mormons, and We Were There at the Oklahoma Land Run.

            Kjelgaard was a writer whose books nearly always featured “an engaging animal, a colorful person, and a distinctive habitat,” as Karen Hoyle noted in Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers. And it would be a sniffy critic who cannot admire the facts that Kjelgaard knew the woods and its denizens intimately, wrote about them without sentimentality and portentous symbolism, and had the rare ability to rivet adolescents with his prose. Those virtues, especially that elusive last one which can spark an entire lifetime’s itch to read, are nothing to sneer at. 

            Reading a masterpiece like Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams after reading the Red books is like encountering a bear in the deep woods after setting out from a clearing filled with chittering squirrels, but the large blessing is a cousin to the smaller one, and each is a bit of grace, and so as I shuffle happily through many books and the deep fir and cedar forests of the Pacific Northwest, I often think with affection of Kjelgaard, and imagine him late in a fall afternoon in his beloved Allegheny beechwoods, walking with “the shuffling, loose-kneed gait of the born woodsman” that he bestowed upon Danny at the very beginning of Big Red.

            With Kjelgaard in my mind are his dogs, Irish setters of course, snuffling after rabbits, bedeviling woodchucks that barely haul their fat autumn selves into their holes as the dogs snap at their heels. The sun is splattering down between the branches of the trees. Perhaps two dead grouse are swinging at the man’s belt and his rifle is carried loosely in his arm as he heads for home and dinner, roast grouse over rice, and after dinner a stiff cup of coffee and a couple of hours writing up the way that bobcat over north of the mountain doubled back through a laurel thicket to fool the dogs, which are at the moment snuffling themselves to sleep in front of the fire. Tomorrow morning maybe he will hike out to the pond and watch for mink and otter, and then in the afternoon work some on the book about a red fox. But right now the sun is low and the day is done and the woods are filled with stories.

 

                                                                                                                        Brian Doyle

Use by permission of Brian Doyle
Article appeared in The
American Scholar
 Last Updated December 21, 2013                                                                                                   HOME